Bumped. Great job again with the preview - BN Eds.
True to form under Mora, the Bruins have ascended from their October slump and are standing tall. Good thing, too, because U.C.L.A. has a difficult task this weekend against the #1 team in the Pac-12 South – Southern Cal. A win on Saturday and we are one game away from our third Pac-12 championship game in four years. A loss, and this season will be seen as a disappointment to many fans expecting this to be "the" year.
It is certainly the Bruins’ best shot in recent history to be in the mix for a championship, let alone a major bowl game. On Saturday, two ranked teams will come to the Rose Bowl trying to legitimize their claim on Los Angeles. But this is a rivalry game, and rankings mean nothing. Throw records and past performance out the window, we all know anything can happen and that's why the game is played. For an objective look on the game based solely on on-field performance, let’s see how Brian Fremeau’s Efficiency Index sees U.C.L.A. and its upcoming match against Southern Cal.
The FEI is an advanced statistical measure that uses "each of the nearly 20,000 possessions" to track a team’s drive efficiency. Basically, the FEI looks at how successful a team is at maximizing its scoring opportunities while limiting its opponents’ scoring opportunities. We’ll also take a peek at Bill Connelly’s S&P+, a play-by-play advanced statistical measure that looks at a team’s success rate and explosiveness per play.
Both the FEI and S&P+ are opponent-adjusted and exclude garbage time. The F/+ combines the FEI and the S&P+ and serves as the "official" college football ranking for Football Outsiders. All "per game" information is pulled from cfbstats.com.
WHERE WE’VE BEEN
U.C.L.A. climbs one spot to #7 after doing absolutely nothing in the bye week because we’re just that good. Respect. Kind of... While most of the readers here, me included, were happy with the win in Seattle, the FEI didn’t particularly think too highly of our performance, especially on the defensive side of the ball, and so we slipped a spot in the overall FEI to #8. But then CFB craziness happened last weekend, as it is wont to do this time of year, and all was forgiven as the Bruins bounced right back to #7. Word.
Southern Cal, for its nail-biter against Cal, dropped from #9 to #14. Hopefully after this week, they’ll stop pretending and fall even further.
Over at Football Study Hall, Bill Connelly updates the Pac-12 race projections and gives the Bruins a 51.6% chance of winning out to head to the Championship game, with only a 7.8% chance of dropping both of the next two. Southern Cal is most likely to finish the conference at 6-3, meaning after we win on Saturday it will all come down to the Golden Domers to see if Sark can get that 8th win he’s been so desperately seeking. Bill also goes through the odds of all the various possibilities the Pac-12 South race can take. Very interesting, but it also makes my head spin.
U.C.L.A. vs. Southern Cal – OVERALL
The FEI gives U.C.L.A. the overall nod, but only just. You can see neither team is a world beater on the defensive side of the ball, with both offenses far outmatching the opponent’s defense. Our Special Teams efficiency is worrisome, as this is just the type of game where good special teams play could get you the win.
At an overall #11 Southern Cal is ranked above anybody we’ve played to-date, save Oregon. The FEI sees the Trojans as a fairly functional team, with an offensive efficiency slightly better than Cal’s, and a defensive efficiency slightly better than Arizona and Arizona State’s. We beat all three of those teams mentioned, but in very different fashions.
• Cal had a strong offense and terrible defense, and we almost gifted them the game with turnovers and good field position.
• Arizona State has a superior offense to Southern Cal, but we sort of lucked out when we played the Sun Devils by getting to match up against back-up Bercovici. Bercovici is a very good quarterback, and will be next year’s starter, but was starting for his first game of the season and clearly had some issues to work through. Statistical measures like the FEI ignore all of the mitigating factors fans always offer up as excuses after their team plays poorly (injuries, personnel issues, coaching decisions, etc.) and focuses only on play our on the field. As such, the FEI doesn’t really care that Taylor Kelly was injured, only that we beat up on ASU. Turnover worked largely in our favor in that game, and the end result was a blow-out.
• Arizona, on the other hand, is sort of like the poor man’s Southern Cal – good, but not great, on both sides of the ball. Despite the score not reflecting it, we had what felt like a pretty comfortable win over the Wildcats and it has been the only game of the season where each component of the team (Off, Def, ST) contributed positively to our margin of victory (see first Game Splits graph below).
And for reference, here are Southern Cal’s Game Splits:
Both teams have been consistently inconsistent, but both are starting to find a rhythm ahead of this game. The Trojans have turned the ball over much less frequently than the Bruins, and are +9 (#12) in turnover margin, compared to the Bruins at 0 (#61). Holding onto the ball will go a long way in keeping this game in U.C.L.A.’s favor. As shown in the second graph above, the Bruins have lived and died by their turnovers (with two losses, and a few near-losses where turnover margin was negative).
Penalties, too, have plagued both teams. The Bruins come in at #119 with 7.8 penalties per game, but may have cleaned up this mess, with only 4 penalties for 37 yards against Washington. Then again, maybe we’re just inconsistent here, as well. After all, we only had 4 penalties against Texas, and 3 against Utah; the next two games will be telling in whether this issue really fixed.
The Trojans are actually one of the few teams worse than us in penalties, coming in at #124 with 9.2 penalties per game. They’ve been flagged 10 or more times in four of their games, with three of those games resulting in a loss of 100+ yards. Anyone watching last week’s game against Cal was probably as amused as I was with Kessler’s unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for taunting Cal’s bench – typical trogan…
As per usual, the S&P+ doesn’t have the same love for us as the other ratings, and places Southern Cal a few spots above us at #24 (vs. Bruins at #30). As we’ll see in the breakouts below, this is primarily due to how the S&P+ sees our defensive play, as well as Southern Cal’s proficiency in passing downs (defined as 2nd down with 8 or more yards to go, or 3rd/4th down with 5 or more yards to go).
Disdain for the Trojans aside, this should be a really good game.
Now let’s take a closer look at the components that make up the FEI efficiency ratings. These measurements consider what our offense has accomplished and what our defense has allowed our opponent to accomplish in terms of:
• 1st Down/TD – Percentage of drives resulting in at least one 1st down or TD
• Available Yards – Ratio of yards earned to total yards avail based on starting field position
• Explosive Drives – Percentage of drives that average 10+ yards per play
• Methodical Drives – Percentage of drives that run 10+ plays
• Value Drives – Percentage of drives starting on own side of field that reach opponent’s 30-yard line or better
The figures shown above are raw and not adjusted for SOS. If they were, you’d see our True Blue bars come up a fair amount (from #32 to #5), and their ugly ketchup and mustard bars come up a fair amount, too (#46 to #24).
I’m going to repeat myself (which I do a lot) from the Washington write-up: outside of Utah (#4), this will be the toughest defense the Bruins have faced. (Btw, I’ll get to repeat myself next week, too, when we face Stanford (#13)). For reference, Southern Cal (#24) is ranked a few spots above Arizona State (#28).
U.C.L.A. has had success breaking off some big runs and the deep ball, but I’m not sure if we’re going to see the same sorts of exciting plays we’ve seen in some of our other games. Southern Cal’s bend-don’t-break defense bends – a lot – but doesn’t break and they actually defend extremely well against the Explosive Drive.
The Trojans defend very well against the run, but not so much against the pass. Regardless, outside of Utah, I’m honestly not sure if Southern Cal has faced a running quarterback this season, so I’m hoping Hundley will be too much for the Trojans and will be able do some damage with his legs.
The disparity in the 1st Down / TD metric is good to see. U.C.L.A. has been doing well moving the ball for a limited number of plays, but a fair amount of these end up in points and U.C.L.A. either hasn’t been able to – or more likely, hasn’t needed to – string together long, sustained drives in order to score (we have a fairly strong showing in Available Yards). However, as bad as we are at putting together Methodical Drives, the Trojans are worse at defending them. This might actually be a game where U.C.L.A. can hold onto the ball, wear the Trojans down, and control the tempo of the game.
At #5, U.C.L.A.’s offense is deemed extremely efficient (Oregon is #2 behind Georgia Tech). Below is a graph of our week-to-week Game Factors, one of the underlying components in the FEI.
Last week’s offensive showing against Washington is ranked at #46 out of the 1,184 FBS games played this season. All in, the Bruins have had five offensive showings this season in the top 10% of all games played. Not too shabby.
The Trojans are ranked #68 in defense and have had some disappointing (or if you’re a Bruin, amusing) games. Two of their losses (Arizona State, Utah) came within the last minutes of the game. They’ve had trouble playing a complete game and could have dropped last week’s game against Cal in the fourth quarter. This unit would definitely not pass the BN Eye Test.
Still, it is a talented unit and this isn’t a game in which the Bruins can fall behind early and expect to come back. It (falling behind early) happened to us against Utah and Oregon, and we never recovered. If there was ever a game where the Trojan defense would stay focused for all four quarters and ball out, it’s this one. The Bruins need to make a statement and set the tone early. Shockingly, we have failed to score in the first quarter in four of our games; that can’t be the case on Saturday.
The Trojans have been blitzing more as of late, and I’d expect that to continue given the Bruins early troubles protecting Hundley. Luckily, U.C.L.A. has recently become much better in this regard.
Add in to all of this the return of
hero trogan zero Josh Shaw and… well, I really don’t know what that means. He was a captain and star cornerback, but has been stripped of his captaincy, has been out for months and I doubt he’s game ready (but really, who know what kind of chicanery is going on at that clown college). And speaking of returning players, the Trojans also get linebacker JR Tavai back from injury and tight-end Bryce Dixon back from disciplinary action for this game. The timing of all of this is just so… troganesque.
Adjusted for SOS, U.C.L.A.’s bars would increase a fair amount (#66 to #43) and Southern Cal’s would decrease just a bit (#18 to #22).
Hm, lots not to like here. Disregard everything I said above about U.C.L.A. stringing together long drives and controlling the tempo of the game. Southern Cal is one of the best at Methodical Drives, and we are one of the worst at stopping them. Advantage: Southern Cal.
They shouldn’t be able to pick up large chunks of yards against us with Explosive plays, but expect at least one 1st down on every drive, likely more, and a good chance that the Trojans will flip the field on us, winning the field position battle (look at 1st Down, Available Yards, and the Game Splits above).
Incidentally, our defense essentially dropped from #34 to #43 after our win over Washington (I say essentially because we actually only dropped to #39 after the game, but then the bye week saw us drop four more spots to #43). Despite doing fairly well on the road, the FEI wasn’t impressed with our inability to stop the Dawgs’ anemic offense and we dropped accordingly.
As mentioned above, the big trouble the S&P+ has with us in this matchup is on passing downs (2nd down with 8 or more yards to go, or 3rd/4th down with 5 or more yards to go). Cody Kessler has found his go-to man in receiver Nelson Agholor, who is #10 nationally with 13.2 yards/reception. He been a little inconsistent, and he’s not quite Marquise Lee, but he’s been trending upward with 100+ yards/game in the last four games, and 200+ yards/game in the last two.
While Nelson will be the top receiver, getting Dixon back at tight-end will give Kessler another solid target and only help Southern Cal’s passing game. That said, the Bruins should fare much better stopping the run, and hopefully hold Buck Allen to the limited production he saw last week against Cal.
Special teams are an often overlooked but very important part of football. In the NFL, it’s been argued that a football team’s total quality is three parts offense, three parts defense, and one part special teams. In college, and specifically for U.C.L.A., I’d suspect that special teams carry even more weight given the inconsistency of their performance. Two years ago U.C.L.A. was ranked #73 in Special Teams Efficiency, last year #18 – this year #61. What gives?
The punt / punt return dynamic looks the most troubling to me. Southern Cal is ranked 24th nationally in punt returns with an average of 11.8 yards per return and two returns for a touchdown this season.
Field goals are still a lingering issue, but Fairbairn’s FG performance against Washington helped bump us from #79 to #57 (season high). Where we need some more help from Fairbairn is on kick-offs, where the Bruins dropped from #14 to #63 after letting Washington return a kick-off for a touchdown.
Honestly, I’m not even sure why this is considered a rivalry, since U.C.L.A. is obviously better at EVERYTHING. But Southern Cal, with its delusions of grandeur, persists that they’re somehow relevant, and so here we are…
The FEI gives the Bruins a 63.9% win projection, and has been correct about half of the time (52.8%) when giving a win projection in the 55%-65% range. So, basically it’s a toss-up, but we have home field advantage. Given that Southern Cal couldn’t fill sell their seat allotment, hopefully we have an overwhelming home field advantage. As with last week, the FPI is less confident in our victory (58.8%), while the F/+ is a little more favorable (66.2% chance of winning; the F/+ has been correct 60% of the time on the season (64% last week) with a win prediction in the 60%-70% range).
FEI – U.C.L.A. 32 – Southern Cal 28
F/+ – U.C.L.A. 42 – Southern Cal 34
Vegas – U.C.L.A. -3.5
#GoBruins! #Beat$C! #WOTT #SoundsLikeBOOM!